I spend last Saturday talking to strangers. As a volunteer for the charity Caritas, I spent two hours in front of a local supermarket asking people to donate food to the Italian National Food Bank. This experience meant that I wore a plastic yellow bib (which declared my legitimacy) while dangling plastic yellow bags in front of passing strangers.
Those who were interested in helping, took the bag and filled it with rice, pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil (this is Italy after all!), baby food or canned vegetables. The donated goods were then collected, boxed and sent off to the local food bank.
I startled most of the shoppers that day with my distinct American accent. “Buon giorno!” I called out cheerily. “Would you like to participate in our food collection for the poor?” I asked this at least 100 times that morning and, as you can imagine, the reactions varied. Some simply said ‘No.’ Some said they had already donated at another supermarket. One man said that he could actually use the yellow plastic bag, thank you very much.
Many said yes and came out with the goods. Others said yes, and I never saw them again. Some wanted more information, and then reluctantly took the bag. The mayor filled two bags. One man responded in equally accented English. Some shook their heads with disgust. And four people walked by, ignoring me while glued to their cell phones.
All this made me reflect on what it means to talk to strangers today. I am nearly 65 years old and can remember being a younger traveler catching trains through Europe and Japan and nearly always at some point striking up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to me. In Italy, I remember sharing warm chestnuts with anelderly farming couple beside me. In Belgium, I shared horror stories about different hostels with a French woman. In Japan, by the time the shinkansen (fast train) had arrived in Osaka, a Korean man had haltingly proposed to me in broken English.
But times are different and so are people younger than myself. Two years ago when I flew home to see my ailing mother in California, the young man sitting next to me on the plane visibly squirmed while answering my chatty questions. I guess he was afraid I would never shut up. Once in California, my sister who is nine years younger and knows me all too well, quickly set me straight at the local shopping center. “Don’t talk to people,” she said, almost under her breath. “Nobody talks to strangers here.”
Okay, I am not pretending that there aren’t certain risks, many that for me have disappeared since I’ve grown older. (No more worries about sudden train proposals!) We all need boundaries, but they need to be permeable and flexible, easily adjustable to the particular situation we find ourselves in.
While it is odd for me to think that nobody talks to strangers anymore, it seems odder still that we do, in fact, talk all too freely to all kinds of strangers – only in chatrooms, and twitter feeds and through online comment boxes. I have so many ‘friends’ on Facebook whom I don’t even know. Even this reflection will be read by some people I have never met, not even on a train.
We have forgotten how to talk to strangers, and so we have inevitably all become strangers. Strangers within our own neighbourhood. Strangers within our own families sitting around the Christmas dinner table. But perhaps more significantly, strangers to ourselves, strangers to our God, strangers to our Higher Self.
Refusing to talk to strangers, automatically means we need to build walls. Inner walls. Outer walls. In a way, the internet has become our collective wall. Behind the walls, we cage ourselves and our own Immense Love. We deny Nature and the Other. All is held captive, locked inside and out, until no one and nothing remains free.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote this beautiful poem about walls:
“He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day, I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.
“I take pride in this great wall and I plaster it with dust and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take, I lose sight of my true being.” (Gitanjali, Poem 29)
We are often so busy trying not to talk to strangers, to people who don’t think, look, behave, or pray like us that we lose sight of who we truly are. We become strangers to ourselves. We become a stranger to the Eternal Love we all possess.
The Christmas story is all about breaking down walls and finding joy in the unfamiliar. The story goes like this:
Put down your phones.
Look to the stars.
Listen to your dreams.
Follow your intuition to the Divine Child.
Be patient. (It’s a long journey.)
Behold. Rejoice. Praise.
Know eminent suffering and death.
Accept. Surrender. Trust.
Look into the Eternal Stranger’s soul.